‘Incredible efforts by earnest souls’

Near the back entrance of St Callan’s church, Rogart, and within collapsing iron railings and low stone wall there is a somewhat difficult-to-read insciption on a gravestone for a minister: Alexander MacLeod. Although buried here and born on the other side of the county in Balchladich, Assynt, he is best remembered across the Minch. Everyone of a churchgoing disposition on the Isle of Lewis has heard of him and, only a year or two back, a service was held in the open air at the very location where thousands gathered two centuries ago to hear him preach. Why is a near household name on the island pretty much unknown in a parish in his own county where he was minister for the same amount of time?

MacLeod’s graestone in Rogart and the inscription. (Photos: Elizabeth Ritchie)

In late November it was my birthday and I got to choose where we would spend Saturday. For some time I had wanted to see where Alexander MacLeod had becone so prominent. We managed to get the baby fed, pack the car and reach Uig in enough time for a walk across the sands and back before dark. The old Manse (I don’t know if this is the same building that MacLeod lived in or not – RCHAMS does not have a date) is now a high-end restaurant. Whether it is the same house of not, it was to this site that MacLeod came when he took up the charge in 1824.

To my eyes this looks like an early C19th building, but if anyone knows more precisely when it was built, I would be pleased to know. I am sure that the Lewis Presbytery Records would say, but I have not been able to access them. (Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie)

When he arrived he was rather appalled at the religious state of things. One elder allegedly prayed for there to be a shipwreck so that they could gather the materials that would be washed ashore. MacLeod felt that the people did not have a grasp of the basics of the Christian faith and decided that there should therefore be no more communions or baptisms until that was remedied. MacLeod got to work preaching the core gospel message from the pulpit, he encouraged learning the catechism, led prayer meetings and promoted family worship within the home. There was stiff opposition among some but others, across the island, were drawn to the teaching.

‘Uig became the centre of attraction, not only to the people of that parish, but also to the whole population of Lewis. Incredible efforts were made by earnest souls in all parts of
the island to be present at the preaching of the Word, even on ordinary Sabbaths. Men, and even women, travelled from Ness, Back, and Knock, distances of from twenty to forty miles, to Uig Ferry from Saturday till Sabbath morning to overtake the boats for church, which often required to leave very early on account of head winds, and the distance to be travelled by sea, which cannot be less than ten or twelve miles.’ (Worthies, p. 227)

The large building behind is the manse and the people would have gathered on the hillside behind to hear MacLeod speak. (Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie)

After four years of teaching MacLeod felt that people could take part in these sacraments with understanding so he prepared for a communion season. These were multi-day events culminating in the dispensing of bread and wine. All over Scotland people would come from considerable distances to attend these. They enjoyed the intellectual stimulation, the sociability, and the spirituality. It was common for over a thousand people to participate, so they often took place outside. A minister might select a natural amphitheatre so the people could range them selves around and hear him. There is such a site in Rogart, just behind the Free Church, and there is another well-known one in Ferintosh on the Black Isle where occasional services are still held. There was often a preaching box which kept the minister and his Bible dry and sheltered from the wind. There’s a great example of one of these outside the old church in Edderton, and there is also one in the museum at Pairc, on Lewis. In Uig the heritage society board indicated that MacLeod would have preached from beside the wall of the manse, with the people gathered on the hillside behind.

Duncan MacAskill, current minister of Carloway Church of Scoltand, demostrates the use of the preaching box in Pairc. (Photo: Duncan MacAskill)

What had been happening in the parish was really quite remarkable. Many people had profound spiritual experieces and were fired with enthusiasm for a revived faith. People’s whole way of life altered, with consequences to the present day. One memoir records that ‘between the intervals of public worship, and after it was over, especially on communion occasions, every retired spot for miles around would be occupied by a secret worshipper, wrestling with God for the blessing on his own soul and that of others. It was quite common for one, who wished to be entirely alone with the Hearer of prayer, to be under the necessity of travelling miles into the moor or mountain to find a place of complete secrecy beyond the sight and sound of anxious pleaders at the throne of grace. It sometimes happened that an earnest one spent the whole night in the solitude of the moorland in communion with God, unconscious of the outward circumstances or situation until the morning sun appeared in the sky.’ (Worthies, p.228)

The author on her pilgrimage (Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie)

While these sorts of scenes were common in the twenty years he was in Uig, they did not follow him when he moved briefly to Lochalsh, and then for another two decades to Rogart. So the man who was at the centre of a lasting religious and cultural shift in Lewis and is remembered two centuries after his work there, is pretty much unknown in Rogart.

Sources: D. Beaton, Diary and Sermons of the Rev. Alexander MacLeod of Rogart (formerly of Uig, Lewis) with Brief Memoir (Inverness: 1925) available online at: http://www.alastairmcintosh.com/islandspirituality/1925-Alexander-Macleod-Uig-Dairy-Sermons.pdf

J. Greig, Disruption Worthies of the Highlands (Edinburgh: 1886) available online at: https://uigchurch.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/1886-Alexander-Macleod-Uig-Disruption-Worthies.pdf

A Man’s Place

There’s a lot of talk today about identity: gender identity, sexual identity, national identity. Identity strikes at the heart of who we feel we are, but it is also shaped by the mores of the day, so it’s possible to study it historically.

Alexander Forbes from Rogart clearly had a strong Christian identity. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

A few avid followers of this blog might vaguely recall a couple of posts on gravestones and how they could be used to think about people’s identity. Well, out of that research I wrote a much longer piece for ‘Genealogy’ journal on how places helped to form a man’s sense of identity in the nineteenth century.

One type of place-based identities I discuss is an identity which is bound up in the British Empire. A superb example here of a family from Golspie Tower who relocated and developed strong identities grounded in Canada West (now Ontario), Yorkshire and Australia. These were the key things that Donald and George Sutherland wanted noted about them and their sister on the gravestone which they paid for. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

The article just got published this past week so I enclose a link here for anyone who might be interested. Feel free to skip the literature review and methodology (or indeed any other part!) There are a good few examples from Dornoch, Golspie, Rogart, Ardgay, Tain and surrounds. It has been great fun justifying my enjoyment of wandering around graveyards while trying to figure out something about what went on in the minds and hearts of people from a very long time ago.

Here’s the link: https://www.mdpi.com/2313-5778/4/4/97

Who can resist a wander around a graveyard on a sunny evening? Creich, with the Dornoch Firth in the background. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

Can anyone identify the graveyard in the header – at the top of this post?

Cholera and the discovery of poverty in Sutherland, part 3

As our current epidemic subsides in this country, here are some final thoughts from Malcolm Bangor-Jones on cholera in Sutherland.

Dr Ross provided further details of conditions in the parish of Rogart. The cottages were “by far the strongest and best built of any we fell in with, and better finished in every respect their furniture is excellent and well kept and in not a few of them we found Grates, both in their Rooms and Kitchens. The people seem to want none of the ordinary Comforts of Life, their Barns were full of Corn, and their Stores inside their houses were equally well appointed as few of them were without their meat Barrels of Beef mutton or pork and some had part of them all. And as to Potatoes they admit if it were possible to preserve them, that they have a stock sufficient for two years Consume. Let me assure you that in many of the houses we saw in and about Rogart, no Gentleman, let his Rank be what it may, but might find himself comfortable for a night.”

On the other hand in the Strathfleet end of the parish they found “many poor widows and old maids in destitute circumstances, and such was the primitive simplicity of those poor Creatures, that rather than expose their wants they borrowed Blankets and Bedcovers from their neighbours, to make what they wished, a decent appearance on that day.” There had been many cases of typhus in Strathfleet that winter – the deaths had been mainly of the more elderly. Possibly this was accounted for by the mild winter.

There was, however, much going on in Strathfleet in terms of its improvement. Dr Ross was not impressed by the crofters in the parish of Dornoch who were “the most useless set of Rascals I know.” Gunn also reported that while there had been very great improvement around the lower part of Birichin, Fleuchary, and Astel they were behind their neighbours in other parishes. He suggested that “the people, perhaps from being nearer the Dornoch law; are more stiff necked, & want the energy of the other Parishes.” George Gunn “threatened & scolded them where I saw occasion for it”. As John Ross, the catechist, was among the worst Gunn promised him a summons of removal “which will have the effect of shewing him & others that we are in earnest.”

Once word got out hundreds of applications for assistance from ‘needy people’ were received. Some argued that the landlords should be assessed. However, an alliance of large farmers and factors managed to ensure that assistance would be provided by way of a voluntary charitable contribution from tenants and landlords. By mid March about £450 had been raised in the east of Sutherland. Mr Dempster did not contribute but instead established a soup kitchen for the poor on his own property and distributed a considerable quantity of flannel and blankets.

Patrick Sellar drew attention to the increase in the number of whisky shops over the previous decade. The distillers had “set up agents and creatures in every Corner; and, one’s servants can scarcely go to Church on Sunday without being entrapped into one of these poison stores. It is in vain that we give meal to feed the hungry if such an agency of poverty, disease, and death be left in full employment against us.” The county agreed that measures should be taken to limit the number of tippling houses. It was also agreed that supernumerary dogs should be got rid of – no aid would be given to anyone who unnecessarily kept a dog.

These measures did not stop cholera coming to Sutherland later that year. Nor is it is easy to determine whether there was a long-term impact on the standards of cleanliness. Certainly a boost may have been given to the improvement of housing.

However, the systematic inspection of every dwelling – possibly unique – did highlight the depth of poverty amongst sections of the population, especially the aged. This was to come to the fore when evidence was gathered by the Poor Law Commission in the early 1840s.

Cholera and the discovery of poverty in Sutherland, part 2

Malcolm Bangor-Jones continues with his investigation of cholera in east Sutherland.

According to the Rev Kennedy of Dornoch everywhere was “all in a bustle.” He had addressed his congregation not only on the cholera as “a visitation of Divine Providence; but also on the use of means, in reliance on the divine blessing, to arrest its progress”. Dornoch had not had such a thorough cleaning for at least half a century. But the “the poverty and wretchedness of the great body of the Inhabitants of this place is extreme.” In many parts of the landward parish the situation was not much better.

The Rogart committee comprised: Mr John Polson, Rovie; George Gunn Esq, Rhives; Patrick Sellar Esq, Morvich; Captain John Mackay, Davochbeg; Dr William Ross, Cambusmore; and Rev John Mackenzie. The minister reported that the committee had met on 9 December and appointed four men to inspect all premises and direct the inhabitants to clean their houses, whitewash the walls with lime, scour their furniture and bedding if necessary, remove dunghills, pigsties, and every kind of filth to a suitable distance from the house and drain off stagnant water. Copies of a printed circular had been handed round and its nature explained in Gaelic from the pulpit. House visits commenced on 21 December and were completed on 19 January. In mid-February each parish was divided into districts and additional men appointed to assist the committee.

The people were most willing to comply with the instructions which had been issued and there were very few who had refused. The minister could not conceal “that the appearances of poverty about some of them were striking; and that aid, to improve their diet and clothing, is as essentially necessary, as the enforcing of cleanliness, to defend them from the influence of contagious disease.”

Sellar, who had been a most efficient member of the Rogart committee – especially in advising people how to form drains around their houses – admitted that he had been among the poor people in the parish more than he had been for 16 years. Some army pensioners and road contractors living in new houses near the road were “very comfortable”. However, Sellar was certain that “there is a deal of poverty and Silent suffering among the sort of farmers [or small tenants].” He suggested that three quarters of them might be assisted to emigrate and the holdings made six times larger. However, he recognised that Lord and Lady Stafford might not wish to pursue such a course. In the meantime, some blankets and meal would help to relive human suffering. He could not resist asking the Sutherland estates Commissioner, “What would have been your case to day had the whole vale of Golspie and Aberscross, Kildonan, Strathbrora & Strathnaver &ca been filled with ‘palmers’ [beggars] of the same Cast?” These areas had been cleared of most of their inhabitants, and replaced by more commercially profitable sheep, by him a decade or two previously, to much criticism.

7866FADF-46D9-439A-A390-8CBA70948659_1_105_c (1)This photo is clearly not from the time! It appeared at an opportune time on the Rogart Heritage Society facebook page and this wonderful example of what people’s houses and outbuildings were like, albeit in the next century, seemed too good an opportunity to miss in this context. Photo credit: Flo Stuart/Rogart Heritage Society

It was noticeable that there was “more misery & appearance of poverty” in Langwell than in all the rest of Rogart. Langwell then belonged to Dempster of Skibo. A separate report noted that many of the tenants on the Skibo estate as a whole were indifferent about the state of their houses. There were a few houses about Skibo itself which were “remarkably well-ordered and clean; but these were inhabited by rather respectable people, who have always clean houses.”

At the end of January the Rogart Committee reported that inhabitants had, with very few exceptions, complied with the instructions as to cleanliness. But to prevent cholera two things were necessary: the complete enforcement of the county injunctions; and affording some relief to a limited number of indigent persons whom the committee found “to be so miserably fed and clothed that they must be in the greatest degree liable to the influence of epidemic disease of every sort.”

The prevailing view was that each landlord should help the inhabitants on their own estate. By the end of February many yards of flannel and numerous pairs of blankets had been bought for the Sutherland estate. Meal was provided as an improvement in diet was considered to be “an important ingredient in the removal of predisposition to cholera”. Medical supplies were also obtained.

Cholera and the discovery of poverty in Sutherland, part 1

In this time of plague, Malcolm Bangor-Jones has been investigating the experience of cholera in the local area, and efforts made to mitigate it. Some might seem familiar. Part 1 of 3.

Michael Hook’s history of the burgh of Dornoch mentions the precautions taken by the authorities in 1831-32 to prevent the spread of cholera. He quotes from the report by the magistrates into the poverty amongst the inhabitants with many, especially widows, the old and infirm, “wretchedly ill off for the very necessaries of life.” [Michael Hook, A History of the Royal Burgh of Dornoch, 2005, page 81]

The arrangements made in Dornoch replicated those made for the county as a whole. Indeed the overall lead was effectively – and unsurprisingly – taken by the Sutherland estate. The factors, especially George Gunn who was based at Rhives, led from the front. He was advised and, as occasion required, instructed by the Sutherland estates commissioner, James Loch, with whom he was in frequent contact. However, in making himself aware of events in Sutherland, Loch also drew upon reports provided by other respectable men in the county. The estate, however, was not officially in charge of arrangements – the responsibility rested with the local authorities.

The approach taken was agreed at a general special meeting of deputy lieutenants, heritors and JPs on 22 November 1831. It was resolved that cleanliness and the circulation of pure air were essential, as was the removal from the vicinity of houses of all ash pits, pigsties, manure and nausea of every description. Lime should be provided to enable inhabitants to whitewash and cleanse their houses. The clergy were to intimate the resolutions of the meeting from their pulpits.

To facilitate these arrangements the county was divided into districts each under the charge of a local committee – “not doubting their ready acceptance” – who were to inspect every house and report their findings to a committee of the deputy lieutenants. The entry into the county of beggars and vagrants – “the dregs of the south country population” – was to be prevented.

Great conscientiousness was shown by factors, large farmers, clergymen and even the sheriff substitute in visiting houses and it was soon evident that the cholera question “engrosses the thoughts and conversation of all classes here at present.” Within a few weeks there were apparently signs of a miraculous change in the appearance of the people and their surroundings.

In mid-December Gunn suggested to Loch that it was essential to “foster the spirit which at present pervades all classes – the Clergy, the Magistrates, the Farmers & smallest Lotters, as if it be allowed to cool & not acted on while in its vigour, there never will be another opportunity of effectually bringing the people to change their habits & mode of living.” By keeping up the visits of the houses for at least six months and by making examples of some of more “most careless”, Gunn expected there would be little trouble with the people so far as regards cleanliness in the future: “the present will be a marked era in their history.”

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Little Rogart, overlooking St Callan’s Church where such announcements were doubtless read out. The parish is not currently bestrewn with laundry. Photo: Malcolm Bangor-Jones.

The clergy had taken up the matter with “as much zeal as any class – last Sunday, a lecture was given in every Parish warning the people of their danger and advising them earnestly to use every precaution.” Dr William Ross had reported that there was “not a bush in the parish of Rogart but is covered with washed blankets & clothings, & that the furniture is all scrubbing before their doors as if it were a general removal.”

Gunn had taken part in visiting the parish of Clyne. At Achrimsdale and Dalchalm the people were “dressed in their Sunday clothes – their furniture & bedclothes carefully washed & the walls whiten than we have seen many Parlours of high pretensions”. However, the Clyne committee found “many miserable creatures around the Lady’s Loch & other places, who positively have not a rag of bed clothing to cover them, but lie on a wisp of straw in their day clothes, or borrow from their neighbours who can ill spare them.”

‘Taking up their abode in the woods’: from Sutherland to Nova Scotia

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Between 1813 and the 1830s the Mi’kma’q people of what became Earltown in Colchester County, Nova Scotia, faced an influx of colonists. These Sutherland families, many evicted multiple times from their rented homes and farms back home, hungered after security and were attracted by the possibility of outright ownership offered by the British government. Over the years they logged the forest, selling the timber, and transformed it into farmland. The ash from burning the logged areas provided abundant crops the first year, giving the impression that the area was more fertile than it actually was. These farms gradually cut off the Mi’kma’q from access to fishing and hunting grounds but provided stability and prosperity for Sutherland people. George Patterson’s 1877 account describes the early years from the perspective of the settlers’ descendants.

“The first settlers were Donald Mclntosh and Angus Sutherland, who took up their residence in the unbroken forest in the year 1813…”

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To Scottish eyes the Nova Scotian landscape is still dominated by “unbroken forest”, but the  vast majority of this is second growth as trees have reclaimed much of the land cleared of old growth. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

“Of the early settlers, nearly all came from … Rogart, Lairg and Clyne. There were families from Inverness, two or three from Ross, and three or four from Caithness. All the original settlers spoke the Gaelic language, and it is still generally used by their descendants. Indeed, it is more generally spoken in Earltown than in any part of Nova Scotia proper. Still it received some admixture of others, for while it had old soldiers who, in the Highland regiments, had gone through the Peninsular War, and at least one who had fought at Waterloo, it at the same time had a foreigner, who had been in the same battle under Napoleon, and the two, instead of being ready to embrace as brothers, were rather disposed to fight their battles over again.”

“Like all who take up their abode in the woods, the first settlers had many difficulties to encounter. They were for years without a grist mill. During that time they got their grain ground partly by the handmill, and partly at a grist mill at the West Branch River. As there were no roads to the West Branch, and they had no horses, they were compelled to carry their grain on their backs to and from the mill, over a rough track. John McKay, known as the miller, put up the first grist mill, at a fall fifty feet high … The mill-stones … were taken from the West Branch, a distance of fourteen miles, on a drag hauled by 36 sturdy Highlanders…”

Cnoc na Guidh, W Earltown

Taken from the now vacant farm of Robert MacKay “Dubh” on Cnoc Na Guidh, West Earltown. The valley below and surrounding hills were settled in 1821 by Joseph Gordon’s emigrants from Strathbrora. Photo: Glen Matheson

 

South View from Spiddle Hill

Farms of people from Urachyle, Strath Brora. Photo circa 1900 from the Haskett-Smith Collection. With thanks to Glen Matheson.

“The early settlers were strong, industrious and economical. They were poor at first, but with great perseverance, they made themselves comfortable homes. There are men in Earltown to-day, who settled forty years ago in the woods without a guinea in their pockets, who have fine houses, large barns, excellent farms and considerable sums at interest.”

[It should be noted that it was very difficult for the poor to emigrate: transporting a family and supporting them for the first year before harvest is very expensive. It is most likely that the settlers used up their resources in the process of emigration. Until the assisted emigrations of the mid-nineteenth century it was the middling sort who could afford to emigrate and the impoverished were trapped in Scotland.]

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“fine houses, large barns, excellent farms”. The reconstructions of eighteenth-century buildings at Fortress Louisbourg give a good sense of the homes of well-established Highland colonists. Photos: Elizabeth Ritchie.

“The inhabitants at that time were all connected with the Church of Scotland, but for several years they were without a minister. In consequence of this, persons sometimes carried their children to Pictou, a distance of twenty-five miles, to be baptized. They were occasionally visited by a minister of the Church of Scotland, and on such occasions it was not uncommon to see him baptize twenty or thirty children at once. Rev. W. Sutherland was the first minister who settled at Earltown. He was never called or inducted into the congregation, but remained ministering to a few who adhered to him till his death. The Rev. Alexander Sutherland, of the Free Church of Scotland, was the first minister who was called by the people, and ordained in the place. He was settled in the year 1845. Though the people were for years without a minister, they did not forsake the assembling of themselves together. There were among them men eminent as Christians, intimately acquainted with the truths of religion, and able to express themselves in a manner fitted to edify others. “The Men”, as they were called, held meetings regularly each Sabbath in the several parts of the settlement, and were the means of maintaining vital godliness among the people.”

Sources:

George Patterson, A History of the County of Pictou, Nova Scotia (New Glasgow, 1877), 277-9.

With thanks to Glen Matheson whose research pointed me to the connections between east Sutherland and Earltown, and whose comments increased the accuracy of the post. And with thanks to Dr Sharon Weaver who introduced me to the delights of Nova Scotia.

Encroachments on our Ancient Language

Recently I was flipping through the Old Statistical Account, written in the 1790s. I was wondering whether a particular individual in Inveran, situated in what I knew was a Gaelic-speaking parish, would have understood English or not. The parish accounts revealed the beginning of a mighty cultural transformation, from one tongue to another.

The minister of Tain did a detailed analysis. He found that the ‘inhabitants of the town speak the English, and also the Gaelic or Erse. Both languages are preached in the church. Few of the older people, in the country part of the parish, understand the English language; but the children are now … taught to read English.’ In rural Rogart, those with English ‘speak it grammatically, though with the accent peculiar to most of the Northern Highlanders.’ So, in the 1790s townspeople were probably bilingual, older country-people were probably monoglot Gaelic speakers, and younger country-people were taught English at school.

Lt Col Sutherland in Gaidhlig

Lieutenant Colonel Alasdair Sutherland (1743-1822) from Braegrudy, Rogart, is buried underneath this rather ostentatious pillar which details his life in both English and Gaelic. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

The second (or New) Statistical Account was written in the 1830s and 40s. By then Gaelic was still generally spoken in rural parishes and more and more people could also read it: in Kincardine each family owned a Gaelic Bible and Psalm-book. The minister of Lairg even thought that because they could read, the people now spoke their own language ‘more correctly.’

English was gaining ground. Young people learned at school but a ‘considerable proportion’ of Rogart’s population acquired the language ‘from books, and occasional conversation with educated persons’. They were therefore ‘more easily intelligible to an Englishman than the dialect spoken by the Lowland Scotch’ because their English had only ‘a degree of mountain accent and Celtic idiom’. Some English speakers had settled in the area, but they had not had any effect. These shepherds had moved from the Lowlands as the Sutherland Estate developed commercial sheep rearing operations and could speak only English. Lacking Gaelic must have meant a rather lonely existence. Their families had assimilated and all spoke Gaelic.

Despite the extension of English, the ministers of Lairg and Kincardine felt Gaelic had not lost ground as it was used in everyday and in religious life. The rural parishes which bucked this trend were Creich, where English was used by the majority, and Edderton, where they spoke ‘English less or more perfectly’. It is probably no coincidence that these parishes are close to the towns of Dornoch and Tain.

Intrigued by this change, yesterday evening I took a turn about the town of Dornoch, then drove to Pittentrail before cycling towards Lairg. I wanted to find evidence of Gaelic. There wasn’t much. Most was tokenistic, or connected with names of streets, towns or houses. There was a nice little collection of materials in the Dornoch Bookshop and a poster for traditional music events. When and how did this dissolution of Gaelic happen?

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The towns acted as catalysts for language change. In Dornoch this was dated from about 1810 and in Golspie from the 1790s. It was ascribed to the influx of ‘persons from the south country’ and to the increase in formal education, first in Gaelic then in English. The minister of Dornoch noted this was as much due to Gaelic schools as to English ones. Indeed in the town of Tain it was rare to find a person under the age of thirty who could speak Gaelic.

Tain was a complex parish, or perhaps the minister took a more sophisticated approach to analysing it. The parish was equally divided with Gaelic spoken in the country and in the fishing village of Inver while the town and the ‘higher ranks’ were English speakers. The parish of Dornoch has a similar town/country make-up and it would have been interesting to know if the situation was similar there.

 Language in Tain parish town Country/Inver village
Gaelic only 66 96
English only 100 36

The minister’s numbers indicate most people were bilingual, but he did warn this was not really the case. Presumably most people had a dominant language and could get by in the other.

In the 1840s Gaelic was still the preferred language of the people. Apart from in the town of Tain they used it for communicating with each other and they preferred attending Gaelic church services. However the minister of Dornoch could see what was coming. He expected that the ‘encroachments on our ancient language’ meant that in sixty or seventy years, that is by about 1900, it would be extinct.

He wasn’t far wrong.

 

Sources

Old Statistical Account and New Statistical Account of Scotland. Parishes of Creich, Dornoch, Edderton, Golspie, Kincardine, Lairg, Rogart, Tain. http://stataccscot.edina.ac.uk/static/statacc/dist/home

Alex’s Farm: On Space, Time and Going Places

They watched me, keeking through the living room window, as my bike skimmed from Pittentrail towards the A9 junction at the Mound. I was racing the light. Too easy in early summer, intoxicated by the evening daytime, to forget the gloaming. And to forget the invisibility of an unexpected cyclist. All evening Janet had plied me with biscuits to wash down the tea as I noted down what Alex patiently explained of the annual tasks of a sheepman. Half-understood notes I found weeks later, scrumpled in my fluorescent pink cycling jacket, when I had returned from the conference in Kentucky. Anxiety at my inadequate knowledge of practical farming had been ameliorated by discovering most speakers at the Agricultural History Society were fine historians but few could have overwintered a cow any more successfully than myself. So in June, at ten o’clock at night, Alex and Janet checked out the window, across two fields and the River Fleet, to ensure the pink blob was safely whizzing east on the A839 to the sea-line and back to Dornoch.
Two hundred years ago I wouldn’t have been there and not for the obvious reasons of my and the bike’s lack of existence. Cycling the mile west to Pittentrail, fording the river, returning east 6 miles then rousing the boatman at Little Ferry to cross Loch Fleet would have been a nonsense, particularly as there was a direct road passing Eiden Farm through Torboll Farm, on the correct side of the estuary and only 2 ½ miles. Today’s road, on the north rather than the south bank, dates from the Sutherland Estate’s investment in infrastructure in the 1810s.

The A839 which joins the A9 to Pittentrail, Lairg and then the north west. Complete with it's own herd of wild goats. Photograph from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie.

The A839 which joins the A9 to Pittentrail, Lairg and then the north west. Complete with its own herd of wild goats. Photograph from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie.

William Young and Thomas Telford’s innovative crossing of the Fleet-mouth was a boon for east-coast travellers, and it made the Estate’s north bank road practicable. The tarmac thread connects some places, but it has added several miles between me and the Campbells. Only a few minutes on the bike, but the best part of an hour by foot, the way most folk travelled two hundred years ago. And in my mind’s map today’s network of roads has divorced places which are actually held fast.

Eiden, looking towardsTorboll and the Mound. Taken from the A839. Photo from colelction of Elizabeth Ritchie

Eiden, looking towards Torboll and the Mound. Taken from the A839. Photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

Last Autumn Alex treated me to an archaeology tour by tractor. I jumped out to open gates on what was the Eiden-Torboll road, its edges tasselled with alder and birch. Up on the rolling ridge, where a warmer climate had once permitted arable farming, crouched the heap of the chambered cairn and the tell-tale circles of Iron Age houses. Folk who farmed Eiden long before the Campbell men, according to family legend, tempted up from Argyll by promises of land made by their sister newly wed to the Earl of Sutherland back in the sixeenth century. And then Alex proposed a wee jaunt, just a bittie further, to see an old stone. Being particularly fond of old stones I was intrigued by the initials C on the Eiden side, and B on the Torboll side. I told him how, before the year Bonnie Prince Charlie came, territory was marked by walking the boys round the boundaries and beating them. The pain and trauma incising the marches in their consciousness. Painting a rock seems a better idea.

Roy's Military Survey of Scotland, 1747-1755. Shows the site of Eiden and Torboll Farms before clearance of townships, the creation of improvement farms and the building of the Mound and the north bank road. The south bank road is marked as a brown line. Image from the National Map Library of Scotland http://maps.nls.uk/roy/index.html

Roy’s Military Survey of Scotland, 1747-1755. Shows the site of Eiden and Torboll Farms and the road up Strath Carnaig before clearance of townships, the creation of improvement farms and the building of the Mound and the north bank road. The south bank road is marked as a brown line. Covers the joins of three modern OS maps. Image from the National Map Library of Scotland http://maps.nls.uk/roy/index.html

But, pushed against the wind on that unremarkable ridge, I realised I was only a few hundred yards away from the site of several Sunday afternoon explorations in Strath Carnaig. My mental map had placed there much closer to home: a mere wiggle up the Loch Buidhe road from my side of the Mound. My place of Sunday hillwanders and a challenging cycling circuit. Eiden, on the other hand, was connected with Alex selling raffle tickets at winter ceilidhs in the Pittentrail Hall and the fun of playing tunes with the Accordion and Fiddle Club on Thursday nights. Yet here I was, looking at both of them together. The Hall just down there, and the Loch Buidhe road over by. Alex’s farm was in both. Bridges stretched across the fissure in my mind’s map.

Alex knew the old places I had tramped on those Sunday afternoons: the white-walled house with the green porch; the wobbly triangle of wall suggesting to the sheep that the grazing might be better within; and the head dyke up Strath Tollaidh (a strath it took me four years to notice, being incised into forgettable stubs by the division between OS map 16 and 21) which once kept the cattle out of the olden people’s crops. He knows them because, despite the illusion created by the technological advances of the 1810s and the happenstances of map boundaries, the separating space does not exist. They are the same place. It is the old road that tells that story: the one from Eiden past Torboll that we bumped along in the tractor; that all the generations before Thomas Telford walked when they drove their cattle; carried their cheese and butter to market; and along which the twelve year old boys slouched each term to board at Dornoch Academy.

The new roads connected some places. Other places, their connectedness now only by tractor tracks and hillpaths, became separate, even remote, as we whizz over the tarmac on our bikes.

With thanks to the Campbells for their generosity in tea, biscuits, sharing of knowledge, tractor rides, lambing tutorials, and allowing me to publish this!

Field Trip to Aberscross

This week’s post is by Roslyn Galbraith, a third year Scottish history student at the University of the Highlands and Islands. She writes of her experience at Aberscross. All photos are from Roslyn’s collection.

In mid May I met up with a group of fellow students from the Centre for History, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, to explore Aberscross, the site of a Sutherland farming township. The area, near the boundary between Dornoch and Rogart parishes, has a long history of settlement and agriculture. Aberscross was the residence of the Murrays who came to Sutherland in 1198, who were involved in many feuds and battles fighting for the Earls of Sutherland and defending the region from their enemies the MacKays.

Strathfleet. The tides from Loch Fleet are now controlled by the engineering work of Thomas Telford and Sutherland Estate factor, William Young.

Strathfleet. The tides from Loch Fleet are now controlled by the engineering work of Thomas Telford and Sutherland Estate factor, William Young.

Although the weather forecast was not favourable, the heavens were with us for it stayed dry for the most part. We clambered up one side of Strathfleet. As we reached a certain height it was possible to recognise the valley floor below us. As it was subjected to tidal floods farming took place up the sides of the hills. We came across a large circled area outlined by stones with what appeared to contain at least three separated areas – maybe the foundations of a tower house: residence of the Murrays perhaps?

Not far from this mysterious outline, Dr Ritchie showed us an example of a corn drying kiln, where barley or oats were dried, in preparation for grinding. The kiln would have had a roof, while the hole on the left side of the kiln was where air was bellowed in to help the drying process.

Dr Ritchie on top of a drying kiln

Dr Ritchie on top of a drying kiln

As we climbed further we soon came to a recognisable settlement, which contained a longhouse with turf walls built on a stone foundation. This would have had a thatched roof supported by wooden beams. The family would live at one end with the cattle at the far end or byre-end on a slight downwards slope with drainage to divert animal waste from the cattle’s feet. Between the longhouse and the enclosure ran a curving ditch which was designed to divert water away from the home and living area. There was also a kaleyard for the cultivation of vegetables, such as kale and cabbage; an enclosure where hens and chickens might be kept; and a threshing floor with storage area.

The threshing floor was an interesting discovery, for none of us students knew at the start what this outline might be and had fun guessing its use. This smaller building was probably used for storing grain but it had two doorways opposite each other, in line with the prevailing wind. This section in the middle was where the grain was threshed so the airflow separated the wheat from the chaff. Between the longhouse and the enclosure ran a curving ditch which was designed to divert water away from the home and living area. This whole settlement was much easier to make out from the other side of the hill.

Settlement site, containing enclosure, longhouse, and kaleyard

Settlement site, containing enclosure, longhouse, and kaleyard

Threshing floors/storage buildings on either side with an enclosed field or garden in the middle

Threshing floors/storage buildings on either side with an enclosed field or garden in the middle

Other areas of interest included the runrigs where barley and oats were cultivated in raised ridges with furrows for drainage between them, and the summer pastures for the cattle and sheep on higher ground.

Probable remnants of rig and furrow cultivation.

Probable remnants of rig and furrow cultivation.

The boundary between the infield and the outfield has been overgrown by heather, but the change in vegetation still gives a clue as to where the cattle were grazed in the summer, away from the growing crops.

The boundary between the infield and the outfield has been overgrown by heather, but the change in vegetation still gives a clue as to where the cattle were grazed in the summer, away from the growing crops.

It gave me an understanding to how people lived and farmed pre-clearance, producing enough food and produce for a comfortable subsistence existence provided the weather and harvest seasons were favourable.

We sat for a bit debating on where the cottars might have lived. Were the small square buildings the homes of the poorest members of this society? As there is almost no information about the cottars we could only surmise on what type of building they lived in and in which part of the settlement they stayed.

Perhaps sitting in a cottar's home? Just enough space for a bed, a chair and a fire.

Perhaps sitting in a cottar’s home? Just enough space for a bed, a chair and a fire.

It was soon time to leave and we stumbled down the hill as the heavens opened up, giving us a good soaking. On reaching Pittentrail Inn for our supper we reflected on the day’s findings, which brought what I had learned in class to life. It was a most enjoyable, thought-provoking and interesting field trip.

It’s Complicated … The Relationship of William Murray and Girzel Grant: Part 2

Glen Matheson was raised in a rural area known as Earltown in northern Nova Scotia. This Highland community was settled predominately by people from the eastern parishes of Sutherland. Many of Glen’s ancestors lived in Strathbrora, Strathfleet and Fleuchary as well as in the Lochbroom area. Glen has been researching the emigrants from Sutherland to Nova Scotia and beyond for over four decades. However his passion is the stories of the early settlers of his home community. He maintains a blog at earltown.com where one will find several connections to the cleared settlements of Sutherland.

The story of William Murray and Girzel Grant took a fateful twist on August 16th, 1809. Grace decided to attend a market fair in Tain along with many from Sutherland. This was an opportunity to sell her surplus cheese and butter outside of her immediate area. It was also a social outing, a break from the tedium of farm life. It was a popular event: a crowd of over 100 people arrived at the northern pier to board the small ferry boat at Meikle Ferry. The ferry across the Dornoch Firth substantially shortened the journey to and from Tain. The boat was overloaded due to the negligence of the ferry operator and the ferry sank midstream. Ninety nine people perished. Many of the remains washed up on shore in the days following. Neither Grace nor her remains were ever seen again. She did not ‘have so much as a grave linen to cover her remains at last’.

Meikle Ferry. Picture courtesy of Historylinks Image Library.

Meikle Ferry. Picture courtesy of Historylinks Image Library.

It would appear that William accepted God’s Will and continued his duties. In 1810 a document shows that he received ten pounds from the charitable relief fund for survivors provided by donors as far away as India and South Africa.

Meikle Ferry Disaster Relief Fund. Grissel Grant is named about half way down the page. Image courtesy of Historylinks Image Library.

Meikle Ferry Disaster Relief Fund. Grissel Grant is named about half way down the page. Image courtesy of Historylinks Image Library.

Within four years William married a younger lady named Margaret. The routine resumed. William continued with his duties in Creich. Around 1813 William and Margaret had a daughter. They named her Grace. It’s complicated…

Out of this complicated relationship between William and Grace had issued at least six children. We have no information on three daughters, Grace and two Marys. One of the Marys likely died young. The remaining three children emigrated to northern Nova Scotia and were among the early settlers of their respective communities. With them went few material possessions however their father’s love of all things holy sustained them in the unfamiliar forests of North America. It is not surprising that several of his descendants were clergy and many were pillars in the offices of the church.

Robert Murray, their son, was born in 1783 and emigrated to Pictou in 1819. He obtained a ticket of location for a land grant in the new settlement of Earltown in the Colchester District. This was an extensive area almost entirely settled by families from East Sutherland. In 1821 he married Mary Sutherland “Ballem” of Craigton, Rogart. She had emigrated to Earltown in 1819 with her brothers. As there were many Murrays in this part of Nova Scotia, they were known as the Valleys, Robert’s land being located in a narrow valley.

William and Grace’s daughter Janet married Alexander MacIntosh of Evelix in Dornoch. They and their infant daughter Grace emigrated to Pictou in 1812. They settled at Elmfield near Roger’s Hill or Ben Na Mhathanach to the Gaels. Two of their grandsons were prominent Presbyterian ministers, Rev. John Murray in Cape Breton and Rev. James Murray in Ontario. Several other clergy in both the Presbyterian and United Churches descend from this couple.

Janet Murray McIntosh. Image from Rev. John Murray, History of the Scotsburn Congregation, Pictou County (1925)

Janet Murray McIntosh. Image from Rev. John Murray, History of the Scotsburn Congregation, Pictou County (1925)

Their son Donald spent a few years in the British Cavalry. He married Margaret Campbell of Cyderhall and settled on a croft at Rearquhar. He lost the croft due to insolvency in 1831 but managed to secure passage for his family to Pictou. He obtained land near Earltown at a place called Loganville. His farm was on a lofty perch overlooking the coastal plains in northern Nova Scotia. The hill was known locally as The Craig and Donald’s descendants have been known as The Craigs ever since. A grandson, Rev. George Murray, served for many years as a missionary in Trinidad.

William and his second wife Margaret remained in Scotland. They appear to have had two daughters. One married a Campbell and the other, Grace, married John Munro, a pensioner of the 78th Regiment. Their son was William Munro. He continued the family tradition of religious leadership becoming a Precentor and Elder in the Free Church of Tain.

William Murray died April 4th, 1825, his body rests somewhere in eastern Sutherland and his spirit went forth in hope of a glorious resurrection. Grace’s earthly remains repose somewhere in the North Sea and her spirit went forth…

It’s complicated.

Sources:
George MacDonald, Men of Sutherland (1937, 2014)
Rev. Donald Munro, Records of Grace in Sutherland (1953)
Rev. John Murray, History of the Scotsburn Congregation, Pictou County (1925)
Personal communication, Dr Elizabeth Ritchie, March 2015